- The Washington Times - Monday, November 27, 2000

For many of us in the active or retired ranks of the military, it felt like a personal blow when Florida election officials disqualified more than 40 percent of Florida's overseas absentee ballots.

From the many generals associated with the Bush campaign to carrier pilots on the high seas, the protests came as close to public outrage as military people ever get. And while a succession of Democratic senators rushed to distance themselves and the Gore campaign from the controversy, the damage was already done. As in most controversies, the truth was more complicated but the consequences no less real. They include a new level of bitterness in the postelection struggle and just possibly another setback for America's not-so-very civil-military relationship.

The extraordinary sensitivity of this issue caught many people flatfooted, but military ballots have a unique place in American history. Votes by Union soldiers helped ensure the re-election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864. Those sent in by soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines serving in every theater of action during World War II similarly helped to re-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to his fourth term. Throughout the Cold War era, voting was strongly emphasized throughout the military as an important responsibility of the citizen-soldier.

As a young officer serving overseas in the 1970s, I got a personal glimpse of what could go wrong. The additional duty of battalion voting officer meant helping our soldiers fill out their absentee ballot requests or providing the required witness statements when their ballots were returned. But sometimes those faraway election officials never responded to the requests of our soldiers and the ballots never arrived. When that happened, it was impossible to tell if the failure was due to oversight or incompetence; but we could do little more than commiserate with the disenfranchised soldier.

I remembered those experiences in 1986 while serving as an Army congressional fellow in the office of Sen. John Warner, Virginia Republican. As a former Marine and secretary of the Navy, the senator was acutely aware of the voting problem, some studies indicating that as many as 400,000 military and civilian overseas voters were effectively disenfranchised in every federal election. Before introducing a Senate bill to reform the system, he had me canvass state election officials for their reaction. As I described his proposal to one such official, she became surprisingly agitated, launching into a rebuttal that may even have touched in passing upon my wisdom and ancestry. Even over the phone, she could be heard drawing herself up for a devastating summation: "Young man, yew obviously don't und-uh-stand. Votin' may be a raht, but absentee votin' is a priv'lege."

That cry of bureaucratic outrage became our banner, inserted in the senator's opening floor speech as an example of the problem. The proposed law, the "Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act," attracted 56 cosponsors, a bipartisan roster that ranged from Jesse Helms to Ted Kennedy and, in one of those delicious ironies of history, also included Al Gore. During the hearings on the bill, Mr. Warner ignored the published agenda, called witnesses from both parties together and asked the only question that mattered: Would this legislation favor one party or the other? The answer, like the bill's eventual passage, was unanimous. Voting was neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue and enhancing the ability of military and overseas citizens to cast their ballots was in the nation's best interest.

Quickly signed by President Reagan, the new law streamlined the procedures for overseas absentee voting. Its provisions authorized a second-chance write-in ballot if state officials did not respond to the original ballot request. The Postal Service was enjoined to ensure that balloting materials were "carried expeditiously and free of postage." And to ensure that streamlining did not lead to abuse, the states were asked to allow federal officials to witness and verify the processing of any required balloting materials. The overall intent: to ensure "maximum access to the polls" by both uniformed and overseas voters.

These reforms resulted in an 8 percent increase in military absentee voting during the presidential election of 1988, the first to use the new procedures. As its bipartisan supporters had made clear, the new law was intended as a level playing field that did not favor one party over another. However, Republicans and some veterans' organizations were aggressive in using the new law to solicit military votes. As a result, military absentee ballots in the 1988 election were credited with influencing or deciding 13 House and eight Senate races, most of them for Republicans. One of the most significant was the defeat in the Florida Senate race of Democrat Buddy McKay.

Although military ballots have not always been cast in such a one-sided fashion, Florida partisans seemed to have overlearned a misleading lesson. Much of the current clamor centers on the excruciatingly detailed criteria for absentee ballot disqualification put together by Democratic activists who apparently considered the military to be nothing more than the uniformed wing of the Republican Party. Strengthened by a recent tightening of Florida statutes on absentee balloting in the wake of a disputed election in Miami, this tactic was nevertheless effective. More than 1,500 overseas ballots were thrown out, many on grounds of absent or imperfect postmarks.

That may have been the hardest point of all for military people to accept. With free postage from combat zones, military mail has always stressed the overriding need to put mailbags on the next aircraft out rather than ensuring each envelope has a neatly affixed postmark. It is also difficult to forgive the concerted effort by Democratic activists to achieve the precise result that their national leaders are now trying to back away from. Maybe these were effective hardball politics, but there is also an interesting provision in the 1986 federal law that makes it a felony "to knowingly deprive or attempt[s] to deprive any person of a right" under that act. The penalties: fines and up to five years imprisonment.

Given the vagaries of Florida law, however, it is far from clear if the activists or the state legislature would be the most likely targets of prosecution. Entertaining as that prospect might be, a more likely scenario is that the stifling of Florida's overseas ballots may strengthen the hand of those who argue that the Sunshine State's election results have been eclipsed by controversy and chicanery. How on the one hand to accept the idea that voter intent can be divined by examining the entrails of dimpled or pregnant chads while on the other rejecting overseas ballots backed by witness statements? There are relatively few grounds for challenging the constitutional supremacy of the states in conducting elections: but the bright line of the 1986 law represents the sense of Congress that there are at least some things that state officials should not be permitted to do. As a result, trial by combat in either the Supreme Court or the House of Representatives may have now become more likely.

Should that tortuous process result in the elevation of Al Gore to the presidency, he will swiftly need to mend the broken-down fences of American civil-military relations. The last eight years have been notable for the imposition on the military establishment of political correctness, the avoidance of casualties and the substitution of micromanagement for leadership. Add to those cumulative effects the suppression of military ballots and Al Gore may enter office under an even darker cloud than his predecessor.

Campaigns have an inevitable impact upon governance: So while this most recent controversy would not affect Mr. Gore's legitimacy as commander in chief, it would certainly influence his credibility.

Real as those consequences are, the disqualification of the military ballots needs to be understood in the larger context of American electoral politics. That larger problem is best understood as the procedural disenfranchisement of the American voter, partly because of obsolete technology and partly because of a complex thicket of legal-bureaucratic regulations seemingly organized around the principle of "Don't steal anything small."

It is simply absurd that American citizens routinely use more effective technology during any trip to the local ATM machine than they do in any local voting booth. One can only imagine how long any financial institution would survive if it used the same technologies and procedures on display in the Florida elections.

We expect our banks and other businesses to use proven information technology to check identities and verify transactions. In selecting our nation's future leaders, we should expect our voting machinery to do no less and to empower voters civilian, military and overseas rather than exclude them.

Kenneth Allard is a former U.S. Army colonel, a Bosnia veteran and a military analyst with MSNBC.

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